AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers could decide at the polls in 2016 whether to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020.

The referendum campaign, spearheaded by the Maine AFL-CIO and the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, kicked off Thursday, when the group turned in the signatures necessary to begin the process for a ballot question.

The plan would increase Maine’s minimum wage, currently $7.50 per hour, to $9 per hour in 2017 and by an additional dollar per hour each year until 2020. After that, the state’s minimum wage would rise or fall based on the cost of living, using the consumer price index.

MPA has said a living wage for a single adult in Maine is about $15.82 per hour and that more than half the job openings in Maine pay less than that. The Maine AFL-CIO has named raising the minimum wage as one of its top priorities this year.

In a news release announcing the referendum campaign Thursday, the labor group’s executive director, Matt Schlobohm, said Maine’s minimum wage is no longer enough to live on.

“The costs of groceries, child care, housing and other basics have gone up for years, but wages haven’t come close to keeping up,” he said. “This is about seniors who can’t retire and parents working endless hours away from their families. Working people deserve fair wages. They deserve work with dignity, and they deserve better than poverty for full-time work.”

The minimum wage for tipped workers, currently set at $3.75 per hour, would increase to $5 per hour in 2017. After that, the tipped minimum wage would increase steadily until it closed the gap with the non-tipped minimum in 2024.

“Servers are some of the lowest-paid employees in Maine, on average making just $8.93 an hour,” said Karen Johnson, a longtime restaurant server in Lewiston, during a news conference outside the State House to announce the referendum on Thursday. “Raising the minimum wage and raising the tipped wage to the same level will get rid of the uncertainty that comes with not knowing if you’ll make enough in tips to afford rent or food.”

Johnson was one of six affiliates of the MPA or the AFL-CIO to sign an application to the secretary of state, the first step in a process that will require the groups to gather more than 60,000 signatures to get the minimum wage referendum on the ballot in 2016.

In an election cycle that often seemed dominated by calls for welfare reform and tax cuts, increasing the minimum wage was one cause championed by Democrats and other progressives that resonated with voters, with national and Maine-based polls indicating broad support for an increase.

Several large businesses, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, voluntarily increased their own minimum wages recently in a move that could indicate a recognition by large employers of increased public pressure for higher wages.

But not all businesses agree. The Maine chapter of National Federation of Independent Businesses voiced opposition, saying the move would be too costly for employers, especially small businesses.

“Regardless of their motives for doing so, even a seemingly modest increase could be terrible for business and will disproportionately affect small employers,” David Clough, the federation’s Maine state director, said in a written statement in March.

There are several bills working their way through the Legislature that would raise the minimum wage, though none go as far as MPA and the AFL-CIO’s proposed referendum.

Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, is the assistant majority leader in the Senate and a member of the Labor Committee. On Thursday, he said that increasing the minimum wage is the wrong approach.

“By increasing the cost of labor, it becomes more expensive overall to operate a business,” he said in a prepared statement. “That cost will be pushed on to the consumer, and everyone, including folks earning the minimum wage, will be paying more for goods and services. A better approach is to continue working to improve Maine’s business environment to attract higher-paying jobs for Mainers.”

In 2013, legislative Democrats passed a bill that would have hiked the state’s minimum hourly wage to $9.50 incrementally over three years, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. Legislative Republicans voted to sustain the veto.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...